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DAVIS, REBECCA HARDING

DAVIS, REBECCA HARDING (1830–1910). Although best known for
her gritty depiction of factory life in her story “Life in the Iron-Mills”
(1861), Rebecca Harding Davis frequently used vivid sea imagery in her
writings. Intimately familiar with marshes, sand dunes, shipwreck* legends,
and the moods of the sea through summers spent vacationing with her
family at Point Pleasant, New Jersey, Davis uses indeterminate coastal settings in exploring ambiguities of gender and class. In the story “Out of the
Sea” (1865), for instance, urbanite Mary Defourchet travels through the
primal seascape of the New Jersey coast, where she observes the quiet mannerisms of its inhabitants. While watching the spectacle of a shipwreck, Mary
witnesses a vision of redemption through disaster as the aged Phebe Trull
rescues her long-absent son, who happens to be Mary’s fiance ´. “Earthen
Pitchers” (1873–1874), set in Lewes, Delaware, questions how urban and
rural characters define artistic and natural aesthetics in relation to a protean
coastal environment. The sea, with its rejuvenating characteristics as well as
thundering surf, quicksand, and buried wreck victims, serves as a vehicle
through which Davis explores social, cultural, and gender constraints and
obligations.
In two of her journalistic essays, “The House on the Beach” (1876) and
“Life-Saving* Stations” (1876), Davis narrates the adventures of tourists as
they explore a section of New Jersey coast. “The House on the Beach”
documents the efforts to reduce shipwreck and storm damage through the
systematic study of weather patterns by the Signal Service. Likewise, in
“Life-Saving Stations,” Davis blends melodramatic action with descriptions
of life-saving equipment and the efficiency of lifesaving crews to respond to
shipwreck. By linking the specific locality to an analysis of heroism and technology, tempered by accounts of morally corrupt wrecking endeavors, Davis
not only replaces the highly romanticized view of heroic lifesaving with a
more balanced realism but also elevates local geography to national prominence.
Other Davis writings in which the sea figures prominently include “Natasqua” (1870–1871), “A Faded Leaf of History” (1873), and “On the
Jersey Coast” (1900).